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‘We’re just lucky to be alive’: Flood survivor recounts day of destruction

The demolished bridge on Max Thompson Road in Bethel. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) The demolished bridge on Max Thompson Road in Bethel. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

It’s late Friday morning. With cloudy skies above and a cool breeze swirling around her, Aubrey Ford gazes out onto what’s left of her front yard and the multiple homes on her family’s property following the raging floodwaters Tuesday night. She lights a cigarette and exhales with a sigh.

“The yard was ankle-deep in water, next thing I know it’s waist-deep with how fast the river was rising — everything just happened so fast,” the Bethel resident said. 

The part of the small Haywood County farming community of Bethel where Ford lives is situated at the intersection of U.S. 276 and N.C. 110. — right at the confluence of the mighty Pigeon River and Bird Creek. Located along Max Thompson Road, just north of the intersection, Ford’s house is perched a hundred yards or so from the East Fork of the Pigeon River, the homes of her parents and grandparents within earshot.

“My house looked like a boat house there was so much water,” Ford marveled. “The water level was right up to the porch. All of us got trapped and headed for higher ground until the river either went down or we got rescued.” 

 

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A heavily damaged home at the intersection of the Max Thompson Road and the nearby Pigeon River. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

 

At about 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Pigeon River started to overtake the banks and flood the front yard. Ford ran to her home and grabbed anything she might need to take care of her 9-month old baby (safely placed in her parents’ farmhouse up the hill behind her home).

“It was the wildest thing — the river rose and the sun was shining,” Ford said.

The water was only a few inches deep in the yard at that point. But, by the time Ford emerged from her home with the baby supplies and headed to the farmhouse, she found herself wading through the muddy water, which was quickly picking up speed. 

“We all ran to the farmhouse. But, my brother and his 12-year-old son tried to get back to his truck on the road and head for their house,” Ford said. “They made it about halfway across the yard when my nephew got swept away in the current.”

The 12-year-old was flung down Max Thompson Road (now a raging river), past the freshly demolished Accurate Auto Repair, only to swim to higher ground and get rescued by his father. The duo trudged through the mud and debris to their Chevy Trailblazer and tried to start the engine. 

 

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The Chevy Trailblazer that a father and son were trapped in amid floodwaters and had to escape through the windows to safety along N.C. 110. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

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Accurate Auto Repair at the corner of N.C. 110 and Max Thompson Road. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

 

But, by this time, the water had reached the windows, with the SUV now stuck in the middle of N.C. 110. Unable to open their doors because of the force of the water, father and son rolled the windows down, climbed out of the vehicle and waded to safety, eventually making it back to their house uphill on nearby Sonoma Road. 

“All you could hear was debris and rocks hitting the houses below, smashing through the auto repair shop,” Ford recalled. “The worst was hearing all the debris slam into the bridge. There was this big storage shed that just crumbled into the bridge. All kinds of debris and trees hitting it — it felt like it would never stop.”

Sitting right next to the old farmhouse, the bridge is currently a disaster area. Huge chunks of asphalt and concrete that once stabilized the structure now lay in nearby cornfields. The amount of force needed to move these thousand-pound objects is unfathomable.

All around the bridge and front yard are pieces of furniture, refrigerators, mattresses, bags of ramen noodles, shoes, children’s toys, etc. — each item from someone else’s home further upstream. And scattered in seemingly every direction are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of green peppers from decimated farmland on the other side of the community. 

At one point, a baby cow floated down the river and got trapped in the debris on the bridge. Neighbors ran outside amid the ravaging flood and were able to save the frightened animal. 

 

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Neighbors save a stranded baby cow atop the bridge on Max Thompson Road. (photo: Aubrey Ford)

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The floodwaters of the Pigeon River overtake the bridge on Max Thompson Road. (photo: Aubrey Ford)

 

“We called 911 and they told us to keep finding higher ground until they could get help out there,” Ford said. “So, we huddled together in the farmhouse and waited it out through the night, not knowing what would happen next or if the water would stop rising.”

By midnight, the water was still extremely high and dangerous, with the level of the river now overtaking the bridge and climbing the hill, ultimately flooding the basement of the farmhouse.

“We were worried when we started to smell gasoline, because the gas tanks we had in the basement had tipped over and spilled out when the water rushed in,” Ford said. 

Now several hours into the fiasco, help did arrive. But, it wasn’t local officials.

“It was the Wilmington Search and Rescue team,” Ford shook her head in amazement. “They evacuated us and we were able to go to my uncle’s house in Canton.”

Returning to their home Wednesday morning, Ford and her family were now able to see the size and scope of the wrath wrought upon them and the rest of the Bethel community and upriver in Cruso. Destroyed vehicles. Piles of debris from god knows where. The porch ripped off her grandparents' home and strewn across the yard. A sea of brown mud and water covering the once green and lush lawn.

 

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A green pepper from a demolished farm field upstream. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

 

Ford said that this flood was way worse than the catastrophic 2004 incident, which she remembers vividly, the river spilling into the same front yard those many years ago. This isn’t Ford’s first flood, and it most likely won’t be her last. She remains, as does her family. This is their home, and always will be — come hell or high water. 

“Everything here is materialistic stuff. It can all be replaced. We can start over, start fresh and rebuild, and we will,” Ford said. “But, you can’t replace people, you can’t replace the ones you love. We’re just lucky to be alive and that everyone in our family is OK. But, this isn’t necessarily the case for other families along this river.” 

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